Toledo’s Million Dollar Robbery

by Lou Hebert

Post Office where it happened

In the early morning hours of February 17th, 1921, young Joseph Hughes was just doing his job, driving a truck from Union Station in South Toledo where he had just loaded a shipment of mail that had arrived from the East, and another load that came up from Cincinnati.  He was  taking the sacks of mail to the new Main Post Office on 14th Street between Madison and Jefferson Avenues. As he drove, he didn’t notice that furtively following behind was a big black car.  A stolen sedan. One that had been taken just two nights before.  It was a Studebaker, bearing stolen plates that had been swiped from a car in the downtown area. Inside the sedan were five men. They had guns and a plan.  What young Joe Hughes didn’t know is their plans involved him and his mail truck and what began as a typical and routine Thursday morning was about to be the biggest day of his young life. As he wheeled the mail truck onto 14th Street to park at the delivery portico,  it was then he may have noticed the black sedan that pulled in right behind him. As Joe Hughes got out to help a fellow mail clerk remove the bags from the truck, two men flashing the revolvers came up behind them and began barking orders. “C’mon men, up with them, it’s a stick up!” The two postal workers put their hands up in the air and one of the gunmen told them to lie down, face down on the loading dock. They did as they were told. Then more men jumped out of the bandit’s car and headed for the  back of the mail truck and started grabbing sacks of mail. In a bucket brigade fashion they began transferring them to their car. There were eleven sacks in all, and within minutes, the bandits had what they had come for.   A voice yelled out, “All aboard” and the rest of the robbers jumped on the car, some still clinging the running boards as they sped off into the dark Toledo’s night.  The whole affair took about 3 minutes. No shots were fired but it was an unnerving experience for some of the workers who weren’t sure if they were would survive. Just one month before this robbery, two Railroad Detectives were shot dead in January during a robbery as they left Union Station with 10,000 in payroll cash.    While no one was shot or killed, it was no less dramatic, for this would prove to be far more than a daring but simple robbery.

Within a couple of days Toledo Police determined that this robbery was the likely work of the Urbaytis Gang. Joe and Frank Urbaytis.  Two brothers who had been in and out of trouble for minor robberies in the past, including bank robberies and a recent payroll robbery, but even after 17 arrests, Joe Urbaytis was only convicted twice and never held behind bars for long.

In the meantime, federal authorities were trying to determine  the value of the loot taken. A mix of cash, bonds, stocks and other securities and  early estimates put the take at no less than a million dollars, maybe more.  In today’s dollars, worth about 12 million dollars. The biggest heist in Toledo history. Perhaps U.S. History at that time.

The Toledo Police Museum still has the file from the robbery, and the faded contents help fill in the holes of the investigation. The file tells a riveting story of how TPD officers worked for days to find Urbaytis, whom they had suspected from the early start of the case.  They  had also had a hunch he might flee to Chicago along with his buddies, George Rogers and Charles “Split Lip” Shultz and Joe Culbert.  Their hunch was correct. On the evening of February 22nd, 1921, police and railway detectives found Urbaytis and some of those gang members on board the Toledo to Chicago train near Elkhart, Indiana. A woman, thought to be Joe’s sister Wanda, was also there, but not for long. Smanaged to elude police and she was carrying a suitcase that contained much of the haul.

By the time the robbery plot mastermind, Joe Urbaytis was formally charged a week after the heist, police had also picked up several other reputed suspected members, including Joe, “Split Lip” Schultz. By May of 1921, the list of people involved, in one way or another grew to almost humorous levels as Toledo Police identified more than 30 people who were thought to have knowledge or in some way participated.  One of them was the Polish speaking Father Anthony Goreck, a Chicago area priest

Wanda Urbaytis

who was said to be “friendly” with Joe’s sister Wanda and had been given about $80,000 in Liberty Bonds for his church. Others involve included those who helped in the getaway, and others who helped launder the loot. It was a tangled web of various characters and plot twists.  When the trial opened in Toledo Federal Court, in June, the atmosphere was circus-like with a  crowd of defendants, attorneys, spectators, and press jamming the courthouse. The scene outside the courthouse steps was a sea of straw boater hats as hundreds of men and women struggled to get inside. Once they made it, every available space in the courtroom was filled with the bodies of the curious who even sat on the floor and on file cabinets to get a seat for what was the probably the “best show in town”.   The only men absent from the spectacle were two of accused armed bandits who were at the scene of the robbery. James Colson and Eddie O’Brien still remained on the run.  But as the trial opened, federal prosecutors felt confident they had the narrative of the crime figured out.  With the confessions of several defendants in hand,  they had managed to piece together the whole story and especially the vital information given to them from accused bandit George Rogers, who openly laid bare to the detectives, the plot, the planning and the players involved.

By the end of June the complex, yet compelling trial was over.  Eleven people were convicted of conspiracy, and 2 were acquitted, while many others had either confessed earlier or had charges dropped. Facing 12 years in prison and a 10,000 fine for these initial convictions was the ringleader, Joe Urbaytis, George Rogers and Charles Schultz.  They were not, however, free of even more charges, as they still faced an October trial for the robbery itself.  The trio had other plan. On Labor Day weekend, September the 5th, they violently overpowered the guards, stole their guns and slipped through the thick walls of the Lucas County Jail. They were on their way to freedom.

They proved to be elusive and the search to find them was unrelenting, as Police Chief Herbert assigned more than 40 officers to the hunt. Believing they may have just “planted” themselves in a Toledo hiding spot for awhile, many known brothels, or places of low-repute, or criminal activity were scoured, but turned up nothing.  Rumors and tips flooded the police station and there were theories that the men escaped to Canada, or Mexico. There was even speculation that the guards may not have tried hard enough to stop the escape, and two deputies that were overpowered were later fired for negligence.

A week later, Charles “Split Lip” Schultz was found hiding in the attic of a home on Crissey Rd where he had forced the woman and her husband to let him hold up. He went back to trial and found guilty on more counts was sent to Leavenworth prison for 40 years. George Rogers last a few months on the lamb, but was eventually nabbed living in a park in Chicago.  Four days later, in Toledo, he was sentenced to 67 years in Leavenworth. But still enjoying his freedom, was the mastermind, Joe Urbaytis who managed to give police the slip for the next three years, then because trouble usually follows the troubled, Urbaytis turned up again. This time in 1924, in Columbus, Ohio, where he was involved in a dramatic gun battle with police, and was shot.  Seriously wounded, he lay in a Columbus hospital and allowed reporters in for bedside interviews and photos. He reveled in his notoriety as a popular public enemy.  Once he recovered, Urbaytis was sent back to Toledo, under heavy guard, was convicted of his additional robbery and escape charges.  With a 60 year sentence, Joe was shipped off to a federal prison in Atlanta. Not once, but twice, he attempted to bust out of the penitentiary. His second escape try, almost succeeded in 1928, but not quite. His freedom was short-lived and he surrendered. After that dash for freedom, prison officials decided Joe Urbaytis was too determined to be left along in the general population.  Solitary confinement and isolation became routine for the Toledo postal robber as he was considered a trouble maker. He was not a compliant inmate and his truculent ways earned him a place at Leavenworth prison, and in 1934, he was taken to  ”the Rock”, the the notorious escape-proof Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay.  Said to be escape-proof, some men tried to escape over the years. No was was successful, unless death is considered freedom.

Urbaytis Bar Room

The story could have ended there and Urbaytis might have died behind the cold bars in those prison wall and perhaps died in obscurity, but once again,  Joe managed to escape. Not by criminal means, but by virtue of a shortened sentence and a second chance at freedom. So in1943, Urbaytis was released and came home to Toledo.  Not one to assume a low profile, Joe thumbed his nose at authorities in the area and flaunted his new freedom by opening an unlicensed night club and gambling house on Woodville Road. It was just outside the city limits in Oregon Township, not far from the railroad overpass.  It was called the Bon-Aire Supper Club, by all accounts, Joe was making money, but apparently making enemies.  In the early morning hours of November 5, 1946,  Joe’s luck ran out.  Someone came to the back door and met Joe there, and shot him twice. Once in the lungs, once in the heart. The gunman fled, while Urbaytis, clinging to life, was dying.  A worker in the club ran to his side to ask if he knew who shot him.  If Joe knew, he would not say. It was believed by the police that he did know, but true to the “code”, he wouldn’t give up the truth.  This time Joe did not escape. Death claimed him minutes later.  His life of crime was over. Toledo Police Chief Ray Allen even wrote a letter to FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover letting him know that Urbaytis had been shot and killed and the FBI could close the books on him for good.

But not quite.

The story of who killed Toledo’s most famous robber and why is not settled entirely.  Strange circumstances always surrounded the murder. The murder weapon was a gun that had belonged to the Toledo Police Chief of Detectives, George Timiney which he had reported stolen from his car about 6 months before.  Some witnesses claimed that Joe Urbaytis himself had possession on the gun just before the murder.  The gun was also found several days later on the lawn of Joe’s mother on Lagrange Street.

The man who was collared for the killing was a well known small time gangster by the name of Frankie Burns. He was 69 years old and the evidence against him was weak, but he was charged with first degree murder. Strangely, in a highly questioned development, the judge held a hastily-called after hours court session and allowed Burns to plea down to a manslaughter charge, thus getting about a year in prison. The public was up in arms and wanted to know what happened. There were accusations that the  proceedings were too opaque and smacked of secrecy.  The public sensed some amiss. Maybe so. After Burns was convicted, he recanted, claiming he had been set up and framed and had nothing to do with the murder of Urbaytis.  Upon his release from prison, a few years later, he also would be murdered.

It may be nearly a century, since Joe Urbaytis pulled off Toledo’s biggest heist, and everyone involved has long since been buried, but for crime historians, many questions stubbornly linger and have yet to be laid to rest.